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Responding to Hoax Emails

What do you do if you get an email that you know is a hoax?

If you receive a lot of hoax and other garbage emails, it can be tempting to fire off an irate reply condemning the sender for his or her foolishness. Serial hoax-forwarders might actually deserve such a reply. These email pests consistently refuse to check before forwarding even when recipients repeatedly point out their gullibility. However, the majority of people who forward a hoax email do so in good faith and perhaps simply need a bit of guidance on the issue from a more Internet savvy individual.

That said, I think there is a right way and a wrong way to go about providing this guidance. Here's what works for me:
  1. Be Subtle!
    Nobody likes to be ridiculed. If a reply is overly aggressive and makes people feel stupid they are likely to focus on defending themselves from a perceived attack and your chance to set the record straight may be lost. In other words, if you get a person's back up, he or she probably won't believe anything you try to tell them anyway.

    So, it is well worth spending a few minutes formulating a polite and subtle reply. The outcome is likely to be a lot more positive.

  2. Backup Your Argument
    Even if you are subtle, the sender is unlikely to feel good about being taken in by a hoax. Human nature being what it is, he or she may well try to avoid feeling foolish by defending the claims in the message and disputing your argument. Therefore, always try to include one or more good external references in your message that back up your conclusions.

  3. Take the Chance To Educate
    Your reply also gives you a chance to help the sender learn how to avoid being caught by hoaxes in the future. Explain how and where you check the truth of messages before you forward them.

  4. Don't do a "Reply All"
    Often, the "To" line of the hoax message reveals that it has been sent to many other people besides yourself. (You might also like to talk to the sender about trimming addresses and using Blind Carbon Copy...but that's another story Smile). Some people simply do a "Reply All" when they send their hoax-rebuttal message.

    While it might seem like this is a good method to let everyone know about the hoax at once, I think there are some real problems with this method. Firstly, there is a good chance that you don't know everyone on the list, so you are basically sending an unsolicited message to strangers. Some might call that spamming. Secondly, at least some of the recipients may already know the message is a hoax and have no need to receive another email rebutting the first. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you run the risk of humiliating the original sender in the eyes of his or her friends and acquaintances. That is quite unlikely to be helpful! (See Point 1 above).

    I generally just suggest that the sender let others know that the message turned out to be a hoax. Whether they do so or not is basically their business.

I've found that a reply something like the following generally gains a good response:

Subject: Re: (whatever hoax message)

Hi [Sender's Name],

Thanks for your message.

However, I need to tell you that the email is actually a known hoax. You can check this for yourself by reading the article(s) at the link(s) below:

There are a great many email hoaxes going around all the time and some keep circulating for years. Most of us have fallen for an email hoax at some point I think, including yours truly (grin). These days, before I forward an email message, I always check it out at:
[Add links to one or more hoax information websites]

Another good way to check if a message is a hoax, is to conduct an Internet search using a key phrase from the message. This will often bring up one or more reputable articles that clearly indicate if the claims in the message are true or false.

You might like to let whoever sent you the message know that it is a hoax as well.

Hope this helps.

Best wishes
[Your Name]

Unfortunately, there are some people that simply will not believe that a message is a hoax regardless of how compelling the evidence you present to them. In most cases, however, by using a good approach to the issue, you can help another Internet user become a little wiser and, indirectly, reduce the amount of nonsense emails that clutter inboxes.

Last updated: 12th September 2006
First published: 12th September 2006

Write-up by Brett M.Christensen